Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a China-U.S. Eco Partnerships Signing Ceremony at the Diaoyutai Guesthouse in Beijing on May 3, 2012. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

With President Xi Jinping readying for a landmark speech at a U.N. conference last month, Hillary Clinton pretty much grabbed the mike.

In a message to her 4.4 million Twitter followers, the presidential hopeful called out the Chinese leader for speaking on women's rights after detaining feminists at home. "Shameless," she wrote, signing the missive with an emphatic "-H."

The tone of the Tweet, and the furious response it generated, is telling. When it comes to Clinton and China, things are complicated — a dynamic worth exploring heading into Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate.

Will Clinton, echoing the "shameless" comment, come out swinging?

History offers some clues.

A frank first lady

Delegates watch a live video feed of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's address to a special session of the Fourth World Conference on Women, on a screen outside the crowded hall where she gave her speech in Beijing Tuesday, September 5, 1995. Mrs. Clinton called for human rights and freedom of expression and criticized China for it's denial of visas to many women who registered to attend the conference. (AP Photo/Greg Baker) Delegates watch a live video feed of then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's address to a special session of the Fourth World Conference on Women outside the crowded hall where she gave her speech in Beijing on Sept. 5, 1995. (Greg Baker/AP)

Unlike many of the Republican hopefuls who invoked China but have little experience there, Clinton and China go way back — all the way back to her time as first lady and her speech at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

In what CNN recently called her "most iconic moment," the then-first lady delivered what's now considered a landmark speech, declaring that "women's rights are human rights" and, without naming China, blasting governments that deny women the right to plan their own families, force abortions or have women sterilized against their will.

For China, it was an affront — too direct and, officials felt, profoundly hypocritical. The speech was censored, and within days the state-backed media was on the attack, lambasting the United States for its own record on women.

But the remarks went over well in the United States In a Sept. 6, 1995, editorial, the New York Times praised her as "unwavering," venturing that her "unflinching" speech "may have been her finest moment in public life."

Clinton wrote in detail about the event in her 2003 memoir "Living History."

“Pushing the envelope in this speech meant being clear about the injustice of the Chinese government’s behavior," she wrote.

Susan Shirk, a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration who now chairs of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California at San Diego, witnessed the Clintons' 1998 visit to China and said the optimism of that era still shapes Clinton's thinking.

"At that time, everybody had this positive feeling that our policy was enabling China to move in a positive direction, but we haven't felt that way in a long time," she said.

A secretary of state who 'shows up'

As the public face of the U.S. "pivot to Asia," Clinton, as secretary of state, was tasked with projecting American power in the Asia-Pacific region — a role that bolstered her reputation for dogged diplomacy but did little to endear her to the Chinese.

In Hanoi in 2010, Clinton, on her fifth trip to Asia since becoming secretary of state in 2009, told delegates at a regional security conference that competing maritime claims in the South China Sea were a U.S. "national interest." The comment prompted a furious response from China's foreign minister, who called it an "attack on China."

Kim Ghattas, a BBC correspondent and author of "The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power," said the tone "surprised" China but was consistent with Clinton's strategy as secretary of state. "Her overriding approach to any relationship with China or others was to project American power and to make sure America is at the table for all conversations," Ghattas said.


Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on May 3, 2012. (Jason Lee/AFP/Getty Images)

The tough talk was coupled with close engagement with Chinese counterparts, Ghattas said. “The strategy was work with them on what you can, and work around them with civil society to promote your values agenda."

According to Clinton's book "Hard Choices," she did just that, particularly when she was tasked with handling the diplomatic fallout after lawyer Chen Guangcheng's 2012 flight from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The case reminded Clinton of the “responsibility to make sure our country remains the beacon for dissidents and dreamers all over the world,” she wrote in the 2014 memoir. (Chen later offered a less rosy account of her role.) China, meanwhile, was furious.

When Clinton passed the baton to John Kerry, the English-language edition of China Daily's offered a sniffy editorial send-off: “Clinton always spoke with a unipolar voice and never appeared interested in the answers she got. Kerry understands the true multipolar nature of the 21st century world."

 A 'pragmatic' presidential candidate?

China has thus far played a rather minor role in Clinton's campaign, but it is likely to get more attention, particularly in light of the country's recent economic turmoil and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Clinton once backed but now says she opposes.

Both Shirk and Ghattas believe that Clinton will continue to take a strong but "pragmatic" stance, speaking out on rights issues without tipping the overall balance of bilateral ties.

Though calling China's president "shameless" did not help her reputation among Chinese netizens, Clinton still seems as willing as ever to speak up.

When Chinese state media denounced her "ignominious shenanigans" and called her a "rabble rouser," Clinton shot right back.

"If China believes defending women's rights is 'rabble rousing,' " she said in a statement, "then they can expect much more of it from me."